David Fincher’s Mank features a number of actors playing icons of the 20th century – including not just Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz, but also Arliss Howard as studio founder Louis B. Mayer, Charles Dance as publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, Tom Burke as the legendary Orson Welles, Toby Leonard Moore as the brilliant David O. Selznick, and Tom Pelphrey as the great Joseph Mankiewicz. One person you almost surely haven’t heard of, however, is Rita Alexander, who was the titular’s writer’s secretary and played by Lily Collins. This is primarily because there is very little substantial information available the actual woman – which presented a certain challenge for the actor as she was getting into the role.
Taking dictation during the writing of Citizen Kane while Herman Mankiewicz is laid up following a car accident, Rita Alexander is a key character in the film, but I learned while speaking with Mank’s Lily Collins during the movie’s virtual press day last month that she didn’t have a great deal to work with when it came to efforts portraying the real woman with perfect accuracy. She still wanted to provide her performance with authenticity, however, which drove her research in other directions:
There's very little research to be done on Rita, unfortunately. There's a couple of photos and some blurbs, but I had to rely on doing research about women of the period in England and in America speaking, obviously to David [Fincher] at length, talking to Gary [Oldman], and really forming what that bond looked like metaphorically. Because she stands for so much in the story as a whole and as a person, but really what she brings to the story is so critical to Mank's journey through his addiction and his insecurities and ultimately to creating the movie.
From a logistical standpoint, Herman Mankiewicz probably isn’t able to actually write Citizen Kane without the support he gets from the diligent secretary. As Lily Collins describes, Rita’s position is primarily to help Mank finish the script in accordance with the tight deadline he has been given, and she does that by transcribing his thoughts and organizing his notes, but she also has to work to save the writer from himself, as he is a hyper self-destructive alcoholic.
So while Rita Alexander may not appear in Mank exactly how she was in real life, Lily Collins did her best to capture her spirit and her contribution. It also very much helps that the actor is what might be described as an “outside-in” performer, which is to say that she uses external elements like costuming to help her fully encompass a role. Collins explained,
I think everything – dialect specifically for me, honing in on that, and hair, makeup and wardrobe really helps dictate a character for me and how you carry yourself. And knowing it would be in black and white. So there were just so many elements of the period that I allowed to totally impact me creating the character.
It’s a cocktail, but at the end of the day it works, and like all of her co-stars in Mank Lily Collins delivers a wonderful performance. If you haven’t seen the film already during its theatrical run, there’s good news if you’re a Netflix subscriber, as the David Fincher movie is now available to stream on the service. Check it out (you really, really should), and then head back here to CinemaBlend, as we’ll have plenty more coverage coming your way.